Returning to our young entrepreneur, my aim was to help him become aware of and then extricate himself from the implicit questions he was inclined to ask: his subliminal questions directed his attention and energy onto problems and negatives. In their place, I invited him to ask more explicit questions aimed at releasing his strengths and taking them into new areas. The “reality” we find ourselves inhabiting is shaped by the questions we ask.

When we’re unwittingly governed by questions such as “What can I get done now?” we’re locked into immediate demands, unaware that what we perceive as inescapable demands are being shaped by those very questions. When we explicitly ask “What can I do to make today special?” we’re tapping into the strength of our creativity, inviting it to come out and play – and playing, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott knew well, is at the heart of creativity.

By consciously reflecting on how he succeeds in clinching contracts for his company, our entrepreneur can distil his own best practices, which can in turn help him to ask new, proactive questions. The “playing” I mentioned has a pivotal role in Appreciative Inquiry, which can be conceptualised in terms of a cycle involving five steps: the 5D cycle.

We begin with the first “D”: Definition. This involves clarifying the right area of work to focus on and thinking about what needs to be achieved. Next comes Discovery: a conversation focused on identifying what the individual, organisation or community does well – the successes and periods of excellence. The third step – Dreaming – is the phase of playing: building on strengths and successes to imagine new possibilities for the future. Finally, we move into the Design and Delivery phase: pulling the imagined futures together into a plan for what might be.

One thing’s for sure in Appreciative Inquiry: it’s considerably more productive than digging holes for ourselves with our unexamined questions.

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